After chasing several varieties of dragonflies on the Edisto Nature Trail a couple of months ago, I heard something rustling in the dead leaves to the left of the walkway, where I spotted a small patch of gray peaking through the mélange of brown. What could this naked, hairless patch of gray be connected to? A snake? Some type of reptile?
The rustling continued until, up popped two ears, alert and erect, followed by a pointy snout. The little body emerged, scaled and practically hairless, followed by a long, segmented tail. It then became clear that this little critter was a baby armadillo, somewhat resembling Piglet from Winnie the Pooh. It brought to mind a family trip to Florida many years ago when I saw my first armadillo, only that earlier siting was a full grown one, sizable in comparison to this little baby and fully encased in a shell of “armor”.
The critter continued foraging through the dead leaves, waddling along, while intermittently poking his head down into the leaves. He was so small, I could nearly fit his entire body in the palm of my hand, but of course I did not, fearing the mother’s retribution to me and to her baby. So I left him there, alone, to find his own way, his mother nowhere in sight. Afterwards, my discovery left me wanting to learn more about this little creature that I stumbled upon in the forest, so I did my own digging…
It is no wonder that the armadillo is such a prehistoric looking creature, as its most recent ancestor existed 60 million years ago; however, it was much larger than the present day armadillo, which typically weighs between 8 and 17 pounds. According to Audubon, the nine-banded armadillo is the only species of armadillo living in the United States, although there are 20 different species of the mammal in Latin America. The name armadillo is of Spanish origin and means “little armored one” due to the hard shells on its head, back, legs, and tail, which do not harden until the animal is fully grown. Armadillos make their homes in shady areas such as forests and brushland. They mainly eat a wide range of insects and larvae, including earthworms, spiders, snails, cockroaches, ants, wasps, flies, beetles, and such, searching for their prey by burrowing and digging into ground litter. They often become road kill victims on the highway due to their natural instinct of jumping upwards when faced by a predator, which doesn’t help them much when approached by a moving vehicle.
Although the armadillo is associated with negative connotations, being the only other mammal to carry leprosy other than humans and often being implicated as a nuisance to homeowners and golf-course operators alike due to its burrowing behavior, I prefer to think of this creature in a more whimsical way. Rudyard Kipling said it best in, “The Beginning of the Armadillo”, a story about how a hedgehog, who couldn’t swim, and a turtle, who couldn’t curl up, became an armadillo, who could do both. The Mother Jaguar in the story remarks at the end, “But it isn’t a hedgehog, and it isn’t a tortoise. It’s a little bit of both, and I don’t know its proper name.”
~ Susan DeTomi